By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
May 23, 2022
Democrats and Republicans in Texas are getting their final say on their nominees for the November election in Tuesday’s primary runoffs — and there are plenty of statewide and national implications.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat from Laredo, is fighting for his political life in a runoff that has put on vivid display a host of divisions within his party. And it’s one of several Democratic runoffs across South Texas that also carry stakes for the general election, where Republicans are eagerly waiting with new ambitions to turn the region red.
At the statewide level, Attorney General Ken Paxton is up against a well-known challenger in George P. Bush, the land commissioner and last remaining member of his famous political family who still holds elected office. Meanwhile, in another Republican primary runoff, Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian is confronting an unconventional opponent in Sarah Stogner, whose shoestring campaign in the primary turned into a serious seven-figure effort in overtime.
And across almost all the most competitive runoffs, there are still reverberations from the bombshell news earlier this month that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Here are five things we’re watching Tuesday.
Can Cuellar hang on?
The biggest race on the ballot Tuesday is Henry Cuellar’s. The nine-term incumbent faces progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, who ran against him in 2020 and lost by 4 percentage points. This time, thanks to a third candidate in the primary, they received nearly three more months to brawl in a runoff.
Cuellar was already dealt a politically seismic blow in the primary when the FBI raided his home in Laredo. And then another major twist came in the runoff: the leaking of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion indicating it would overturn Roe v. Wade, which cast the harshest spotlight yet on Cuellar’s lonely status as a Democrat who opposes abortion.
“Jessica is running against a candidate, Mr. Cuellar, who apparently believes that it is appropriate for the government at the federal, state and local level to tell every woman in this country what she can and cannot do with her body,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said during a rally with Cisneros on Friday in San Antonio. “Jessica and I and you disagree.”
House Democratic leaders have stood by Cuellar despite their promises to protect abortion rights in a post-Roe world. Two days after the leaked opinion, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn came to San Antonio to campaign for Cuellar, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has done a robocall for him in the runoff, calling him a “fighter for hardworking families.”
Cisneros has had to confront an avalanche of attack ads claiming she would take jobs away from South Texas due to her 2019 suggestion to “split ICE in half and reassign enforcement functions to other agencies.” She has denied she would support anything that would put South Texans out of work.
Pro-Cuellar super PACs have poured nearly $3 million into the runoff, with the lion’s share coming from United Democracy Project, a super PAC aligned with the pro-Israel group American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Groups backing Cisneros have not been able to keep pace, though she has raised much more money on her own during the runoff.
The attacks on her have gotten personal. They have increasingly centered on a March story by the New York Post that said she had a relationship with a former high school teacher, who was married, when she was in college. One billboard put up by the advertising firm of a Cuellar backer labeled Cisneros a “home wrecker.”
The runoff has been unscrupulous to the end. Over the weekend, it surfaced that a mailer went out proclaiming that Cuellar had been “cleared” in the FBI probe, a deceptive claim given that only his lawyer has said he is not the target of the investigation. Even more suspicious: The mailer lacked a disclaimer saying who paid for it.
Will the Republican primary runoff for railroad commissioner be more competitive than the one for attorney general?
Heading out of the primaries, it looked like the most competitive statewide runoff for Republicans would be the one for attorney general, where incumbent Ken Paxton faces challenger George P. Bush, the land commissioner. But polls have continued to give Paxton a lead — sometimes double digits — and he has been campaigning as if he expects a clear victory.
Rather, the most interesting statewide runoff may be the GOP one for railroad commissioner. Incumbent Wayne Christian faces a unique challenger in oil and gas attorney Sarah Stogner, who first made waves in the primary by releasing an ad where she rode a pumpjack nearly naked. But her campaign got more serious in the runoff as she benefited from $2 million in funding from Ashley Watt, a West Texas rancher who is close to Stogner and has been battling the commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas, over abandoned oil wells on her property.
Stogner is the underdog, but the runoff has been fascinating if only because it is rare to see a seven-figure fight over a seat on the commission, usually a political backwater. And Christian and his allies are taking it seriously, stepping up attacks on Stogner that portray her as a secret Democrat who would damage the state’s coveted oil and gas economy. Without his own seven-figure megadonor, Christian has had an industry-funded political action committee, Texas Now, come to his aid in the homestretch, airing TV ads saying there is “only one candidate that we can trust to stand up and fight for Texas oil and natural gas.”
While the runoff for attorney general may not be that close, it still carries broader meaning because Bush is the last remaining member of his famous political family serving in elected office. Paxton has urged supporters to “end the Bush dynasty.” Bush has said he’s “proud” of his family’s contributions to the country but has tried to redirect attention to Paxton’s personal legal issues.
“This is a big-stake race,” Bush said in a radio interview Friday, “and I’m just so thankful to have the opportunity to present an option for conservatives out there that want to be proud of their choice to be the nominee to beat the Democrats.”
Can Democratic men survive statewide runoffs?
While Beto O’Rourke is already the Democratic nominee for governor, the party is still sorting out its candidates for four other statewide offices — and in each case, it is a man versus a woman.
That’s put Democratic men in the awkward position of having to pitch themselves as stronger advocates for abortion rights than their female opponents in light of the Roe v. Wade news.
The tension came into sharp relief over the weekend in the Democratic runoff for attorney general, which pits Joe Jaworski, a former Galveston mayor and current lawyer there, against Rochelle Garza, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who sued to help an undocumented immigrant get an abortion. In recent days, Jaworksi sent out a mailer claiming to be the “only candidate with the experience to protect reproductive rights from Day One.” That drew a harsh response from a constellation of abortion rights groups that are supporting Garza.
“Reproductive rights are absolutely going to be on the ballot this year, so it’s no surprise that candidates want to highlight the issue,” Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List, said in a statement. “But Joe Jaworski is falsely inflating his own record while diminishing Rochelle Garza’s.”
Polling shows other Democratic men in the statewide runoffs are also in precarious shape. Mike Collier, who is running statewide for the third time in eight years, could lose the runoff for lieutenant governor to state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton. He has the support of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, but Beckley has been campaigning on her votes for abortion rights in the Legislature, and a recent survey showed her in the lead. Furthermore, Collier is running TV ads in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — Beckley’s backyard — in the final days before the runoff as he tries to avoid getting upset.
Then there’s Jay Kleberg, the conservationist filmmaker and member of the prominent South Texas ranching family who is running for land commissioner. He has raised far more money and collected many more endorsements than his lesser-known runoff opponent, Sandragrace Martinez. He is the only fellow statewide candidate that O’Rourke has endorsed, too. But an April poll showed Martinez in the lead, and she is arguing that Democrats need to nominate a woman and challenge the “good old boys’ club.”
“It is a woman’s time — a woman’s right to choose, a woman’s right to be here and a woman’s right to be on this ticket,” she said during an appearance earlier this month in San Antonio.
Can the Republican establishment keep up its success in state House races?
Texas House Republican leadership did pretty well in the March primary, losing no incumbents outright after the hectic shuffle of redistricting and ensuring that its preferred candidates advanced in open seats. But the runoffs are proving more trying.
Priority No. 1 for the establishment has arguably been state Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, the only committee chair who was forced into a runoff. Her challenger, David Lowe, has been persistently working to outflank her on restricting abortion and medical treatments for transgender kids. Meanwhile, she and her allies have gone hard at him for owning a number of sexually explicit URLs in the early 2000s, suggesting he could be a public safety threat in the Legislature.
Three other GOP incumbents are also in runoffs: state Reps. Glenn Rogers of Graford, Kyle Kacal of Bryan and Phil Stephenson of Wharton. House Speaker Dade Phelan and his allies have swarmed Rogers’ and Kacal’s races with resources, but Stephenson has been left for dead — and Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed his challenger, Stan Kitzman, last week. It was the first time Abbott backed an opponent to a sitting Texas House Republican since the 2018 cycle. His Kitzman endorsement came after text messages and mailers went out falsely claiming that Abbott had endorsed Stephenson.
In open seats, leaders especially have a lot on the line in places like House District 63, where they are trying to prevent a victory by Jeff Younger. He is an activist who has been one of the loudest voices statewide blaming Texas Republican leadership for not doing enough to outlaw gender-affirming care for transgender kids, and he would undoubtedly be a thorn in Phelan’s side if elected.
It has not helped the establishment that top Texas Republicans have openly sided against one another in the state House runoffs. Most notably, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is opposite Abbott in several runoffs where the candidates appear to differ on “school choice,” with Cruz backing those who are more supportive of the concept.
The mixed signals from GOP leaders continued over the weekend, when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick endorsed Nate Schatzline in the runoff for an open seat in the Fort Worth area. Schatzline’s opponent, Laura Hill, is backed by Abbott and Phelan.
What kind of Democrat prevails elsewhere in South Texas?
The Cuellar-Cisneros battle has captured outsized attention, but there are three other primary runoffs in South Texas that are important to the future of the Democratic Party. The nominees in the region matter more than ever in recent memory given that Republicans are aggressively targeting South Texas in November.
In the 15th Congressional District, Democrats Ruben Ramirez and Michelle Vallejo are running for the nomination for an open seat that Republicans see as their best congressional pickup opportunity this fall in Texas. In Texas Senate District 27, Democrats Morgan LaMantia and Sara Stapleton-Barrera are fighting for the nomination to replace longtime state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, a socially conservative Democrat who is backing LaMantia. And in House District 37, Democrats Ruben Cortez and Luis Villarreal are battling for a new battleground seat in Cameron County that Republicans created for themselves in redistricting.
There are clear ideological divides in the runoffs. Ramirez is proudly running as a moderate, while Vallejo is doing the same as a progressive, embracing the single-payer health care system known as Medicare for All, drawing Ramirez’s criticism. Candidates in these runoffs are also generally split on Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that border officials use to rapidly expel migrants at the border. The Biden administration had planned to end it late this month, but a federal judge has ordered it to remain in place.
Lucio’s legacy also towers over these runoffs. While he is supporting LaMantia to fill his Senate seat, he is also backing Villarreal, a former aide, for HD-37. Both their opponents — Stapleton-Barrera and Cortez — ran against Lucio in the 2020 primary, and Stapleton-Barrera forced him into a runoff. Their bitter history is especially coming out at the end of the current runoffs.
“This race is reminiscent of the 2020 election, where Luis’ opponent unsuccessfully tried to unseat me with the help of various teacher advocacy groups,” Lucio wrote in a recent letter to HD-37 voters that assailed Cortez on multiple fronts, including his education level.
While Ramirez, LaMantia and Villarreal have all benefited from the support of key local incumbents, their more progressive opponents have also been able to build momentum in the runoff. Over the weekend, for example, Stapleton-Barrera announced the endorsement of state Rep. Alex Dominguez of Brownsville, who ran against her in the March primary and came in third with a quarter of the vote.
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/23/texas-runoffs-things-to-watch/.
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